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So Why the Need to Attack the City of Angels?

November 22, 1994|THOMAS CURWEN

L.A. bashing has always been good sport.

Woody Allen certainly wasn't the first when (in "Annie Hall") he cited the ability to make a right-hand turn on red as the city's sole cultural advantage.

Bertolt Brecht called Los Angeles a coal mine and a sewer, and Aldous Huxley swore that "No man could find a better spot on Earth, if only he had some intelligent person to talk to."

Certainly Peter Theroux as a journalist and critic is aware of the company he keeps. In "Translating L.A.," from which these early examples are drawn, he writes: "L.A. books often seethe with tendentious exhibitions of adoration, bitchery or gloating pessimism."

As he tries to avoid those pitfalls himself, he comes to understand the phenomenon the same way a meteorologist might understand smog.

"I think the supercilious condescension toward Los Angeles," he says, "is a cover for an annoyed curiosity, a certain exasperation--how can that place be so big and important when it really should just be a resort."

He also believes the snide barbs that the city endures have something to do with the city's promise of prosperity. For Faulkner, Brecht and Huxley, Los Angeles represented an opportunity to make money, a motive that Theroux contends put them on the defensive. If they had moved here for any other reason--say, the weather, the cocktail parties or the stimulating conversation--why would they have become so venomous?

In the same way, Thomas Mann, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh loved Los Angeles, but they too gave it "the same sort of ritual hazing, to show that they had not sold out."

Of course, envy also plays a role in eliciting contempt for the city.

"Los Angeles has been at the end of the rainbow, the repository of dreams, the dream factory," says Warren Olney, host of the radio program "Which Way, L.A.?" "People come here and are disappointed, which makes it easy for them to contrast the reality with the dreams that the city has engendered."

Historian Kevin Starr finds bashing the stamp of "bourgeois intellectuals," who have yet "to envision a new kind of city, both in terms of its physical form and in terms of its melding high and pop culture."

In "Translating L.A.," Theroux has placed himself on the other side of the critical spectrum, so much so that his vision of the city--to critics--smacks of boosterism. Certainly it is a perspective that doesn't lead to the fatalism that prompts many people to write this city off. Boosterism--if that is the word--goes a long way toward instilling pride, even offering some sense of enfranchisement within this seemingly embittered metropolis.

Theroux's wry humor helps him maintain his perspective on the city. Never intending to write an analysis of Los Angeles, he was more interested in something "small and ironic."

If "Translating L.A." is well received, he suspects it is because people are ready for an unfashionable point of view--that life in Los Angeles is not all that bad.

"It's very easy to write about places that you hate," he contends. "You can take all the cheap shots you want. Writing about a place you have a real affection for is a more thoughtful process. It's difficult to be positive in a sprightly way and sound like you know what you're talking about.

"You have to have a little bit of depth, depth that comes from knowing a place and making the effort to see how it all falls into place."

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